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Is It Time To Rehabilitate Antonio Salieri ?

   Poor Antonio Salieri (1750- 1825 ) has gotten a bum rap in music history . For so long , he's been seen a mediocre composer with a pathological  envy of the divinely gifted Mozart , and  there have been long-standing but totally bogus rumors that he may have been guilty of causing the untimely death of his supposed rival in 1791 by  poisoning him .

   The enormous popularity of Milos Forman's  film Amadeus , which came out 30 years ago and was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaeffer , hasn't   exactly done much for Salieri's reputation . In fact ,  the film, while  highly entertaining , makes mincemeat  of the historical facts and  also paints a highly misleading  picture of  Mozart .

    So just who was Antonio Salieri ?   Far from being a non-entity , he was one of the best known and respected composers of the 18th and early 19th century .  He was a prominent composer, conductor and teacher who was a pupil of none other than the great  opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose 300 th anniversary comes this year .  He was highly connected within the classical music world  of  his day ,  friend of  the most powerful aristocrats of Europe and  many of the most important composers of his day .  He knew Mozart well and  the two were on good terms .  Does this sound like a  mediocrity ? 

    Salieri was born in the Veneto region of Italy , that is the mainland area of Italy surrounding  Venice ,  and showed  great promise as a composer in his youth .  But he moved to  Vienna and spent  the rest of his life there while making frequent  trips around Europe , and became fluent in German . 

    Salieri was one of the leading opera composers of his day and wrote numerous stage works which were widely performed in his lifetime but which have been completely forgotten until  recent revivals , but  also composed  symphonies, concertos ,  choral works such ass  Masses and  Requiem etc . 

    Somehow , rumors  began to circulate  after Mozart  died in 1791 that he had poisoned him , but there is not one shred of evidence for this absurd accusation .  The film Amadeus portrayed him as being insanely envious of Mozart and obsessed with  his inferiority to his rival , and  shows him as an old man  living in an insane asylum many years later   constantly brooding over Mozart . 

    Interestingly ,  Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov , famous for his exotic orchestral suite "Scheherezade " , wrote a brief one act opera with  small orchestra  called "Mozart and Salieri ".  The two are the only characters apart from a  non-singing or speaking role for a violinist .  Salieri has invited Mozart to his home for dinner ,  and sure enough , by the end , we find that  Salieri has  poisoned  Mozart . The opera has been recorded a few times and you can see it on youtube with  English subtitles .  It's certainly interesting but not at all typical of the other Rimsky-Korsakov operas , which deal with  Russian history and folklore .

     You can also  see and hear recordings of some of Salieri's music  on youtube .  A few years ago, I took out a DVD of  a performance of  Salieri's opera "Falstaff " from my library, based on Shakespeare's  "The Merry Wives of Windsor ".  Verdi's  final opera  "Falstaff ", also based on the play, is of course far better known, and one of the greatest comic operas ever written .

     But I found the Salieri opera highly enjoyable , and would definitely recommend the  DVD , which was filmed at  the opera festival  in Schwetzingen, Germany , which specializes in reviving  obscure operas ,about 20 years ago .  The music is witty and vivacious , not at all the work of  a mediocrity . 

    The renowned Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli  is an enthusiast for Salieri's music and has recorded a number of  arias and  othervocal works by him , and  recordings of his music are no longer  scarce .  So forget  the  movie Amadeus , entertaining as it is,  and give the music of  Antonio Salieri a chance !   You won't regret it .

Posted: May 13 2014, 09:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Major Orchestras Issuing Their Own Recordings - A Growing trend .

   The classical recordings industry isn't what it used to be . Gone are the days when the world's leading orchestras used to have recording contracts with such presitgious  classical labels as Deutsche Grammophon , Decca  , EMI Classics , R.C.A . and others and  produced a steady stream of  studio recordings and sometimes ones from  concerts under the world's most eminent conductors . Works ranging from  Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to  20th century repertoire .

   What happened ?  Classical recordings are very expensive to produce , and few of them sell  like the proverbial  hot cakes . Especially expensive in America  for some reason;  it costs less to produce classical recordings in Europe .  In the 1960s , when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic , Leonard Bernstein  made regular studio recordings of works he was conducting live for  what is now Sony Classical records , Columbia records at the time, later CBS records .  Most of these are still available, and still sell  well  by the standards of  classical recordings .

    His successor ,  French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez , now 89 years , continued to make recordings with the orchestra .   The Indian-born Zubin Mehta was next, but  the orchestra lost its contract .  The Philharmonic began to make recordings with  Deutsche Grammophon and then  Teldec records when the German  conductor  Kurt Masur took over ,  but  under  Lorin Maazel, who took over after Masur , the orchestra made exactly one recording ,  a new work by  American composer  John Adams .  And this was a live recording, not a studio one . 

   Now , under Alan Gilbert,  the Philharmonic has begun making live recordings of the six symphonies of the great Danish composer  Carl Nielsen (1865-1931 ) for a  Danish label .   During his more than 40 years with the Philadelphia orchestra ,  the Hungarian-born  Eugene Ormandy made hundreds of recordings of a wide repertoire for  Columbia, R.C.A. and later England's EMI and a couple of other labels ,many of which are still available .

    Other notable  conductor/orchestra/record label  teams  include  George Szell  and the Cleveland orchestra , Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago symphony ,  Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston symphony for R.C.A . ,  Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic ,mostly for Decca ,  William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh symphony ,  and the Hungarian Antal  Dorati with several orchestras in Minneapolis , Washington, D.C. ,  Dallas and   Detroit ,  and so forth .

    Under the dynamic young French Canadian conductor  Yannick Nezet-Seguin ,  Deutsche Grammophon has  believe it or not,  just issued a studio ! recording of Stravinsky's  Rite of Spring for the centennial celebration of this  seminal  work with the Philadelphia orchestra .

    In Europe , Herbert von  Karajan made hundreds of recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic , which he led from 1954 to 1989, the year of his death .  No fewer than three sets of the nine Beethoven symphonies for example , plus and earlier one with the Philharmonia orchestra of London, not to be confused with the London Philharmonic .    Most of the Berlin recordings were for  Deutsche Grammophon , and some for EMI . Karajan also made numerous recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic , for  Decca and D.G. .

    The five  orchestras of London  , the London symphony, the Philharmonia , the London Philharmonic , the Royal Philharmonic and the B.B.C. symphony , have long been the most prolific  makers of recordings , under countless different conductors , famous and lesser known .

    These great orchestras still make recordings , but  they have been becoming  ever more scarce, and almost all  are from live concerts , usually with  sessions after concerts to  clean up any mistakes and flubs , which are inevitable live . 

    But within the past ten years or so , a number of leading orchestras have decided to form their own  recording  companies and  issue  recordings of  live performances  on their own .  One of the first was the London symphony orchestra , founded in 1904  as a self-governing  entity , and some of these  have become  classical  best sellers .  The late, great Sir Colin Davis , the L.S.O. chief conductor  at the time led an acclaimed series of live recordings of the music of the great 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz , who music he had long championed .   The L.S.O .  and  Sir Colin had already made renowned recordings of these Berlioz masterpieces years ago for the now defunct  Dutch label  Philips , but these were studio recordings .

    In America , the Chicago , Boston and San Francisco symphonies soon  began issuing their own recordings , under respectively Riccardo Muti, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink (Chicago ), James Levine (Boston ) and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco ).  The Atlanta symphony under its current music director Robert Spano has just  released its first recordings on its own label , of Sibelius symphonies, and the Seattle symphony is about to  begin  its own recordings .

    The Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam ,  the leading orchestra of the Netherlands had  made an enromlous number of recordings  for Philips , and a fair number for other labels such as Decca under  numerous distinguished conductors, such as  Willem Mengelberg and Bernard Haitink  , two of the most eminent Dutch conductors , as well  as  the Italian  Riccardo Chailly, who was the first non-Dutch music director of the orchestra , and now under its current head , Latvian maestro  Mariss Jansons , is issuing its own recordings .

   The Berlin Philharmonic , now led by the British maestro  Sir Simon Rattle , has just issued its first  recordings on its own , of the four  symphonies of  Robert Schumann .

    A number of  independent  classical labels such as  the budget label  Naxos ,  Chandos of England , and CPO of Germany , are still issuing  recordings  by a variety of different orchestras , including the  radio orchestras of Germany , which have long enjoyed generous  government support .  Naxos has issued recordings by  the Detroit , Baltimore, Nashville and other U.S. orchestras . (Yes, there is an excellent  symphony orchestra in Nashville, home of Country Western music !) .

    Is this a good trend ?  Will it  increase sales of  orchestral recordings ?  Will more and more orchestras begin to issue their own recordings ?  It's difficult to answer the first two questions , but  the trend seems to be growing , and most likely, more and more orchestras will  become free agents  .  It seems to be an eminently sensible move

Posted: May 12 2014, 09:46 PM by the horn | with no comments
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May 7 - Birthday Of Tchaikovsky And Brahms

   By coincidence ,  Johannes Brahms and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, two icons of  19th century classical music , were born on May 7th, respectively in 1833 and  1840 .  So I thought it might be interesting to compare both composers , who were very different indeed in  their musical  and aesthetic philosophies . 

   Both composers have long been extremely popular,  and the music of both has  caused considerable controversy .  Neither was very fond of the other's music , although they met a number of times and  got along well .  Both produced  beloved staples of the repertoire ; symphonies, concertos, chamber music , songs,  choral works, music for solo piano etc , but unlike Tchaikovsky , Brahms never wrote any operas .

    The music of both composers is  highly melodious and full of  warmth , but  the music of Brahms is  more austere and  restrained .  Tchaikovsky has been accused by more than a few prominent  critics and musicologists of writing cheap , sentimental  and  even vulgar works intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator, although this is anything but a fair accusation .  On the other hand , Brahms has  been accused of writing  dry , grayish and  labored music , lacking in freshness and  sponaneity , also an unfair accusation .

    Tchaikovsky's music probably has more immediate appeal  to  newcomers to classical music ; it is certainly more colorful  and  superficially exciting to the general public .  The supposed "sentimentality" of  Tchaikovsky's music  is probably  the fault of performers who  are guilty of  exaggerating  the  emotional qualities of his works . 

    Brahms wrote four symphonies ; Tchaikovsky six, although only the last three have been  performed often for some reason .  The German wrote two piano concertos, one for vioilin and one for  violin and cello .  Tchaikovsky completed two ; a third exists in torso form and only the first is  played with any frequency ,although the second deserves to be better known .  Tchaikovsky also wrote one violin concerto .

    Brahms also wrote  two concert overtures , The "Tragic" overture, and the "Academic Festival overture" , which uses  popular German university songs . It was written on the occaision of  the composer being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Breslau, formerly in Germany , but now in  Poland .

    Brahms was a strong believer in  "absolute " music, music with no programmatic  story behind it ; pure ,abstract music , but Tchakovsky wrote such well known  programmatic , descriptive works as the symphonic poems  "Romeo & Juliet,"" Francesca D Rimini ", based on  Dante's Inferno ,  and other orchestral works .  Thye programmatic symphony "Manfred " , based on a  poem of Byron , is not numbered among his six symphonies . 

    Tchaikovsky wrote three  ballet scores which  are frequently performed  in excerpt form at concerts,  the  famous "Nutcracker",  "Swan Lake" and  "Sleeping Beauty . "   His mist famous opera is  "Yevgeny Onegin " (Eugene Onegin ) , based on a long poetic drama by Pushkin about a  cynical bachelor who rejects the love of a  naive y0oung woman ,only to realize later  how much he loved her  now that she is married .  Another  remarkable opera is  Pique Dame ,(Queen of Spades ) also based on a story by Pushkin about a  troubled  soldier and  gambler who is obsessed with finding a  magical formula in gambling in order to win the love of a  beautiful , elusive  young woman of the aristocracy   , with disastrous results . 

    Tchaikovsky's other operas , such as  "The Maid of Orleans ", a fictionalized  opera about  Joan of Arc,  and others , are rarely performed outside of  Russia , and not even that often there . 

    The best known choral work by  Brahms is the "German Requiem ", which does not use the traditional Latin  Requiem text , but familiar passages in Martin Luther's German version on death and dying .  Unlike Verdi's  intensely dramatic ,almost operatic Requiem , the German Requiem is a gentle and reflective work , full of  consolation and resignation .

    Brahms was born to humble parents in a lower class section of Hamburg in 1933 ; his father was a  local musician who played the double bass and encouraged his son to  develope his talents as a budding young pianist and composer , and the young man acheived a considerable reputation as a pianist , attracting the attention of  the great Robert Schumann ( 1810-1856 ), who recognized his great talent .  Brahms moved from  dour maritime Hamburg to glamorous, cosmopolitan  Vienna , where he spent the rest of his life .He never married . 

    Tchaikovsky was the son of  a provincial Russian  government official , born in  the town of Votkinsk , far from Moscow and St.Petersburg ; he came from a fairly well off family and also showed  great talent in his youth ,  but Russia  did not as yet have the  developed and sophisticated  musical life of Germany , and he  studied  law ,  well as studying at the recently opened Moscow conservatoire .  He attracted the attention of a very wealthy woman who was the widow of  a  Russian tycoon, Nadezhda von Meck, who admired his music so much she provided him with generous support so he  would not have to seek employment in another field , as his contempraries Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov had done . 

    Curiously ,  the widow  insisted that the two never meet personally , and they never did .  Tchaikovsky was a gay man , which was hardly  acceptable in polite society at the time , and he   reluctantly entered into a brief sham marriage to a young woman who was infatuated with him .  This nearly drove the sensitive and rather neurotic composer to suicide , and the two were soon divorced .

    The death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 under mysterious circumstances 1893 has long been a  subject of discussion and speculation .  Apparently, he drank contaminated water during a cholera epidemic  and  died .  According to some stories, he was ordered to commit suicide by  certain individuals in  the Russian aristocracy because of an  affair with the nephew of  a prominent member of the Tsar's family, but  this has not  been confirmed .   Brahms died of natural causes in Vienna in 1897 , a year after the death of his close friend  Clara Schumann , widow of Robert and a well known pianist and composer in her own wright .  There has been speculation that the two may have been lovers , but this has not been confirmed .

    Tchaikovsky was prone to depression and  was frequently overcome by  homesickness on his frequent trips to  countries such as France, Italy , Germany etc, and visited  America in  1891 , conducting his music at the opening of Carnegie hall .  Brahms had a reputation of being  gruff and  curt with people , and according to one story which may or may not be true , he once left a party in Vienna  offering his apologies to anyone there he had not insulted !

    If you're new to classical music , there is a huge array of recordngs of  the music of these two  great composers available ,  by  so many great  classical musicians , living and dead , as well as plenty of DVDs .  A good place on the internet to get recommendations for these is . 




Posted: May 07 2014, 06:13 PM by the horn | with no comments
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A Bizarre Production Of Schumann's Only Opera From Zurich On DVD .

  Lately , I've been seeing  some rarely performed  but interesting operas  on Netflix .  They have a wide variety of  classical  and opera DVDs available ,  so I've been taking advantage of  this .  Among  these are a  rare production of  the only opera by Robert Schumann - "Genoveva " ( hard g as in  gum ) .  It was filmed at  the Zurich   opera several years ago . 

    Schumann (1810 - 1856 ) is best known for his  beloved piano concerto , his four symphonies ,  his many art songs ,  works for solo piano etc, but  he did write one opera , Genoveva ,  which is the story of  a brave medieval German Count and his beautiful young wife  Countess Genoveva .  Count Siegfried must go off to war to fight the   Moors from  Spain who are invading  Europe , and he leaves Genoveva in the care of his  trusted servant Golo in his castle , who is secretly in love with  Genoveva but who dares not reveal this .

    Golo declares his love for her and  makes a brazen pass at her, but she rejects him .  He falsely accuses her of  adultery with another one of  the Count's servants , who is killed by the angry residents of the castle .  Genoveva is  accused ,  and  sentenced to die .  But  Count Siegfried returns  just before she is executed , the plot is revealed and everything ends happily .

    Not a bad subject for an opera , and  Schumann wrote some  beautiful  and stirring music  for it . But for some reason , the opera has had only sporadic revivals  since the mid 19th century .  Many critics and musicologists have dismissed it as hopelessly  ineffective dramatically despite the fine music .   It was not recorded  until the late 1970s , when the distinguished  German conductor  Kurt Masur  led it with the renowned  Gewandhaus orchestra of Leipzig in the former East Germany , of which he was then chief conductor . 

    Another distinguished conductor , Nikolaus Harnoncourt , best known for his  performances with period instrument orchestras ,made a more recent Digital recording with the Chamber orchestra of Europe , and he leads the Zurcih production .

    But the  production , directed by  one Martin Kusej (  KOO - shay )  is  so perverse  and   grotesquely  inappropriate it  would  have given poor old Robert  heart failure if he could see it .  Not to mention the unit set , which  serves for all the different scenes in the opera .  The costumes  are of  Schumann's time , which is the least  of  the production's  quirks .  This is unfortunately typical of  European opera productions today , which  vie with each other in  trying to be as trendily  perverse as possible . 

    The one set consists of an all white room  with a modern sink !  The characters  frequrently jump on top of it for no apparent reason despite the fact that the action takes place over 1,000 years ago ,long befiore modern plumbing .  Fake blood  frequently appears out of the blue on the white  wall ,  and many of the characters have what looks like soot on their faces for no apparent reason .  Fake blood also comes out of the sink at times . 

     Characters who are not in certain scenes of the opera  stand there in front of the others , even though they are supposed ot be far away at the time .  Does this even make any sense ?   Perhaps the most ludicrous  thing in this  wacky production  is when  an invisible chorus is supposed ot be singing behind the scene , where  the sorceress Margaretha , who is involved in the plot against the hapless Genoveva ,  performs magic for  some reason too complicated to explain here .

     The   phantom chorus is right there in front of the audience , and is dressed up as surgeons !  with  scrubs and  surgeon's masks covering  their faces .   The chorus  takes a bunch of dead fish  !   and swings them around ,  later throwing them in a pile on the floor  .  Genoveva  is nude , with her back to the audience . Sheesh !!!  What got into the mind of the director ?  

     And this is by no means the most  ridiculous  and  bizarre production of  an opera  which has  appeared at European opera houses in our time .   For  nearly 40 years , such  productions have be de rigeur in Europe .  You almost never see a production of an opera set in  the time  of the  original story or with costumes of the period .  The opera may  take place in the middle ages , but  the  cast and chorus  are usually in  modern clothes  as well as the sets . 

    Some productions  at  the Metropolitan opera and other American opera houses  have  updated the  action and costumes to the present day , but  the directors  rarely  go as far  as those in European houses  in  dreaming up bizarre  arbitrary gimmicks .

     But at  least I got a chance to  see  this  rarely performed operatic masterpiece . 

Posted: Apr 28 2014, 10:04 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Happy 123 rd Birthday to Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953 )

  The great Russian composer  Sergei Prokofiev was born in  the Ukraine to Russian parents  123 years ago today .  His exuberant , witty, melodious and colorful music  has been  beloved all over the world for nearly a century .  Prokofiev showed  great talent as both a pianist and  composer from childhood ,  and he  studied  at the St. Petersburg conservatory with such notable  Russian composers as  Rimsky-Korsakov and  Alexander Glazunov from boyhood to early adulthood .  He then went on to make  quite a name for himself as both a pianist and composer , appearing all over Russia , Europe and America as a pianist ,playing both his own music and that of others  ,spending much of his life  in Europe and  the U.S.A. until he returned to the U.S.S. R . in  1936 , often having to deal with the random displeasure of  Joseph Stalin , a confirmed music lover but  one who made life extremely difficult for leading  Russian composers with his  random displeasure with their music . 

   According to the dreaded Georgian-born tyrant , any music which displeased him was unfit for the Soviet public .  Prokofiev's younger  contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975 ) also suffered  greatly under  Stalin .  One of the weirdest coindcidences in the history of music is that  Prokofiev died on the very same day as Stalin in 1953 !

   Prokofiev composed masterpieces in virtually every musical genre ; works for piano ; sonatas , miscellaneous piano pieces ,  five piano concertos , two for violin , two for cello ,  seven symphonies and other orchestral works ,  operas, ballets ,  oratorios ,  chamber music , etc .

    His music  has  enormous  expressive range ; it can be  witty, sarcastic , playful ,  heroic, tragic ,  fantastical , weird ,  radiantly lyrical , you name it .  But it is  almost  always  very  Russian in feeling  .  Prokofiev's music is  very rich in  memorable  themes ,  his harmonies are  always  pungent  and his orchestration is colofrful and inventive . 

    Among his most famous works are his first symphony , from around  1917 , the so-called "classical " symphony , which  is an  attempt to imitate the style of Mozart & Haydn while  using  20th century harmony ,  the third of his five piano concertos ,  the fifth symphony , the music to  the  famous  Sergei Eisenstein film  "Alexnder Nevsky " adapted for concert performance ,  the familiar  "Peter and the Wolf " ,  the music to  the ballet "Romeo & Juliet " ,  the two concertos for violin  etc .

    The various operas of Prokofiev , which have only been widely performed  in recent years ,  are among the most  fascinating  of the 20th century . They include  the monumental and  very long  "War & Peace  " ,based on the great Tolstoy novel  ,  the zany  farce  "The Love For  Oranges ", based on  an 18th century  Italian  comedy , a sort of operatic Monty Python sketch ,  and the  weird  and profoundly disturbing   "The Fiery Angel ", a  nightmarish story of  obsession  ,black magic and demonic possession in 16th century Germany .

    Other ballet scores include  " Cinderella " , based on the familiar  fairy tale ,  and  "The Stone Flower ", based on  old Russian legends .  Prokofiev  also wrote  sweeping and  powerful music for the  Eisenstein fim  "Ivan The Terrible ," and this was  adapted for concert use after the composer's death . 

    The "Lt.  Kizhe " suite for orchestra comes from the music to the Russian film of the same name about  a 19th century  Tsar who reads a military report inaccurartely and   comes to believe in the existence of a non-existent Lt. Kizhe . However , his militry staff are too  frightenend to tell the mighty Tsar that he has made a mistake and  resort to making up  bogus reports of his  supposed military expolits . When the Tsar asks  to meet the  officer ,  he is told  of his death in battle and a mock funeral is held !  This  film gave Prokofiev a chance to  display  his  musical wit , which he did in many of his works   . 

    Prokofiev's music has been  widely recorded and  given  some of the greatest pianists , violinists , cellists and conductors  of the 20t century to  show their mettle .  Among them pianists  Vladmimir Horowitz ,  Sviatoslav Richter , violinists  Jascha Heifetz ,  David Oistrakh and   Itzhak Perlman , cellist and conductor  Mstiislav  Rostropovich , who was a close  friend of the composer ,  and conductors  Yevgeny Mravinsky,  Eugene Ormandy,  Gennady Rozhdestvensky ,  and Leopold Stokowski , to name only a handful . 

     These recordings and those of many other distinguished  intperpreters of  Prokofiev are easily available  on CD , as well  as  DVDs of the ballets and operas . 

    The music of Prokofiev is both modern and  accessible , and there is so much of it to enjoy .

Posted: Apr 23 2014, 08:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Does Classical Music Have To Be Tuneful To Be Good ?

   Well ,for one thing , it depends on what you consider to be tuneful .  Not everyone agrees about this .  Melody is certainly an important part of what we call classical music ,  but not all music  ,particularly  atonal and  12-tone  works of the 20th century is  conventionally melodious .  It should be remembered that while  all  12-tone music is atonal ,not all  atonal music is 12-tone in the Schoenbergian sense .

    Some classical works by  famous composers are  very tuneful , and  listeners find this very appealing ,  and why not ?   The most  popular classical works  usually have catchy melodies ,and  this is one reason  even  people who  have little or no knowledge of classical music can easily recognize them . 

    But  many great works by  many great composers  are not full of  immediately  appealing  melodies  , such  as  the music of the so-called  "Second  Viennese School ",  ie , the music of  Arnold  Schoenberg and his  two most famous  disciples  Alban Berg and  Anton Webern .  Or other important 20th century composers such  as  Olivier Messiaen ,  Elliott Carter ,  Milton  Babbitt ,  Pierre Boulez et  al .

    However, this is no reason to reject  their music out of hand .  You simply need a different mindset , as well  as  some  patience , to  appreciate it .  It also helps to have a decent or better background in  music theory , but this is not  absolutely essential  .

    The  12-tone works of Schoenberg  are not  conventionally tuneful , and you're not likely to  exit  a performance of them whistling  the tunes . But they DO  have recognizable  MOTIFS , that is  short recognizable  recurring  (sort of  ) melodic  ideas  .  A melody might be defined  as  a  tune of some  length , but  a motif  might be described  as  a very brief (sort of ) melodic idea .

    While melody is certainly important in classical music , nice hummable melodies  alone do not  great music make .  What matters is what the composer DOES with those  melodies or themes .  This is what  creates  masterpieces .  The themes ,or melodies if you insist on calling them this ,  are merely the basic building  blocks ,the raw material , of  any given  classical work , whether a symphony , concerto, sonata , or what have you . 

    Many of  the themes in Beethoven's music ,  for example ,  are not particularly interesting  in and of themselves . They're just simple  themes consisting of  rising  and falling  melodic lines ,  scalar  ideas , that is ,melodies  rising or falling by short intervals , or  with disjunct  intervals  of wider leaps .  But  Beethoven's  genius consists in his  ability to  transform  these  simple  basic ideas by constantly altering them in the most  ingenious manner . 

    In any given  symphony , concerto or sonata etc by Beethoven ,  those basic  themes  are constntly varied and altered ;  by subtly changing the  basic  shape of the melody ,  using different orchestral instruments to play them , thus varying the tone color ,  switching  the themes from major to minor or vice versa ,  using  augmentation and  diminution of the  themes  by  lengthening or  shortening the  length of the notes,  using counterpoint ,or having  the basic ideas  played  as different  voices  going on at the same time  but  not beginning  exactly at the same time ,  and  many,many other ways .

     You might compare this to a novel or short story ;  each consists of a story  with a varity of different characters , and  a symphony could be called  a novel in music , with  a variety of different themes occurring through the different  movements .  Each movement might be compared to a chapter of  a novel ,  although  symphonies  , concertos  & sonatas  usually have only  three or four  movements ,  occaisionally  more or fewer than this . 

     As in a novel or short story , the themes are like the characters ; they never remain the same and are constantly  changing  and evolving over time .  The hero or heroine of a novel is never the same as in the beginning ,nor the other characters .

     A theme and variations is a work where a composer takes a preexisting melody from some other work , either by another composer or  himself  , and  subjects  that  melody to  constant  changes  over a period of time  .  It iusually consists of the basic  theme ,  which  keeps changing  , in  separae sections ,  vraration 1, 2, 3,4, 5,  and  more ,sometimes more than 20 .  Orthe theme could  be  a  popular melody or  folk song .

     There are so many of these by so many great composers , such as Haydn,Mozart, Beethoven , Brahms , Tchaikovsky ,Rchmaninov , to name only several , and they are can be for solo piano ,  piano and other instruments , or for orchestrra etc .  Some individual movements of symphonies or sonatas etc , consist of  themes and  variations , one of the most famous being  the famous  Schubert quintet for piano and  strings  , the so-called  "Trout  Quintet ", where the composer   takes the melody from one of his songs , which happens to be about a  fisherman  fishing for  a trout in a stream and  subjects it  to  variations .

    Schubert music is known to be very melodious ; but  what makes his music  great is not the melodies alone .  And this is true of so many great composers .  Catchy melodies  without  a great composer's  genius in  working  with them  are not really worth  much .  So when you listen to any  classical masterpiece , you should  always try to be aware of what the composer ACTUALLY DOES with the melodies to  gain  true enjoyment  and understanding of the music .

Posted: Mar 24 2014, 10:53 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Happy Birthday To Barry Tuckwell , The Heifetz Of The Horn

  Today is the  83rd  birthday of  one of  the  greatest  masters of  that  treacherous instrument , the French  horn ,or as some purists insist ,the horn ,  Australian  native and world citizen ,Barry Tuckwell .  He has been  retired  from playing  the horn in public since the late  1990s ,but  is still very much  active as  a teacher and  a conductor . 

    As a former horn player myself ,I've always been  in awe of his  incredible  virtuosity and  golden tone . But  this is true of  every one who plays this instrument .  He makes it sound as though playing this extremely difficult  instrument  were  easy  !  Tuckwell is one of the few horn players to make a successful  career as a full time  soloist ,although he  began as an orchestral  player . 

    Because of his astounding  virtuosity  , Tuckwell has been called the  "Heifetz of  the horn ".  Born in Melbourne in 1931 ,  Tuckwell  took up the horn as a  boy and  showed such innate andprodigious  talent  for the instrument  he began to play  professionally in  Australian orchestras as a  teenager .  He moved to  England  and played in various leading  British orchestras  until  becoming  principal  horn of  the presitgious  London symphony orchestra ,playing  under many of the world's foremost  conductors , and left the orchestra to pursue a career as a solo  hornist ,appearing to great  acclaim all over the world

    In addition ,he  has made numerous  recordings ,more than  any other horn player , of  the  horn concertos by  Mozart ,Haydn ,  Richard Strauss ,Paul  Hindemith , Carl Maria von Weber and  lesser known composers who have written solo works for the instrument , as well as  new works by  leading contemporary composers  such as Gunther Schuller , a former horn player himself ,  Thea Musgrave ,  Robin Holloway , Richard Rodney Bennet  Oliver Knussen and others  .  These composers have  written works specifically for him . 

     Tuckwell  has also been active  as a conductor , appearing  with  many different orchestras , including  the London symphony ,  and  has served as music director of the  Baltimore symphony orchestra in  America .  He  has taught  horn  master classes  alll over the world  as well as teaching  privately  at  leading music schools  . 

    He has written  three books on  horn  playing ,including  one for the late Yehudi  Menuhin's  series of books on the various  orchestral  instruments  written by  various  great  virtuosos .  This book is  a  goldmine of  fascinating  information  about the history  of the  horn  ,its  playing  technique  and construction , and I recommend it highly  . 

    If you would like to experience  his  great  artistry ,  try his recordings  of  some of  the most famous works  for the horn first , such as the concertos  of  Mozart and  Richard  Strauss  first  .  They are easily  available  at  and elsewhere on the internet .

Posted: Mar 05 2014, 07:45 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Happy 85th Birthday To Bernard Haitink , The Modest Maestro

   "Modest  Maestro "  sounds like an oxymoron ,  but today is the 85th birthday of the venerable  Dutch conductor  Bernard Haitink (High -tink) ,one of  the most eminent  maestros of  our time .  Conductors have the reputation of being  flashy, imperious ,egotistical  and sometimes downright ruthless , but  the veteran Dutch conductor has never shown any of these qualities .  He may be the most unpretentious individual ever to achieve world renown on the podium .

    And  musicians in  virtually all the world's great  orchestras  have enormous respect for his  sterling musicianship and  leadership  abilities .  They certainly don't like every conductor they work under , and in some cases they have nothing but contempt for them , but if you talk to ny of them , they have nothing but the highest  regard for him . They can spot a phony instantly . 

    He has conducted  virtually all of the world's  top orchestras and conducted  opera  at the Met and served as music director of  London's presitgious  Royal Opera for some years ,but the orchestra with which he has been most closely associated is the  great  Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of  Amsterdam , where he was principal conductor for many years untlil stepping down in the  late 1980s .  This is the foremost orchestra in the Netherlands , and  virtually all the world's greatest conductors have  appeared  with it .

     Mestro  Haitink has also served  as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic ,  the Staatskapelle of Dresden ,  music director of the presitgious  Glyndebourne opera festival in England ,  principal guest conductor of the Boston symphony , and  served for some time  as principal  conductor of the  Chicago symphony ,not music director , in between  Daniel Barenboim  and its curren tmusic director Riccardo Muti . He has also been a regular with the Vienna Philharmonic , the Bavarian Radio symphony of Munich and the Berlin Philharmonic .

    As a conductor,Haitink has always  avoided  interpretive flashiness , and his performances are straightforward  but anything but  dull .  His repertoire ranges  from Mozart and  Beethoven to  works  by contemporary composers .,  He is particularly renowned for his performances of the monumental  symphonies of  Bruckner and  Mahler, which he has recorded complete .  

    Haitink has made  numerous recordings of orchestralrepertoire as well as a number of  complete opera recordings , including  Wagner's complete Ring with the  Bavarian Radio orchestra .  He has made no fewer than three recordings of all nine Beethoven symphonies , three of the four Brahms symphonies ,  the six of Tchaikovsky , the nine of  British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams ,  the four of Robert Schumann, aand many other composers .  The  Netherlands has produced a fair number of composers ,none well known outside of  the country , but Haitink  regularly performed their music in  his native Amsterdam .

    He has reached the age of  85, a time  when most people have long been retired or are now in  homes for the elderly , but  maintains an active  international schedule .  Many  great conductors ,such as Stokowski , Ormandy , Sir Adrian Boult , Otto Klemperer , Kurt Sanderling , Pierre Boulez , Kurt Masur , and others have never felt the need to retire  because the physical activity of  conducting seems to promote  good health in old age .

   So let's all wish a happy 85th birthday to a modest but remarkable musician !  



Posted: Mar 04 2014, 08:26 PM by the horn | with no comments
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It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Context .

   Why am I mangling the title of a famous song by Duke Ellington ?  I'd like to talk about the importance of  context in classical music . As I see it ,it's a major  stumbling  block  to enjoying  classical music for many . 

    When most people think of music ,they think of  SONGS .  Pop songs . Rock songs etc .  What do these songs deal with for the most part ?  Love .  Possibly politics or some other things .  But while  vocal music is a very important  part of classical , much of it is purely instrumental .  Symphonies,concertos ,  sonatas ,symphonic poems , suites , etc . 

   So many people are just not accustomed to listening to purely instrumental music .  If you take someone and  play him or her a  recording of a symphony by Beethoven , or a sonata for piano,or a string quartet etc and that person has no background in this kind of music , knows  next tonothing about classical ,chances are it will mean nothing to that individual .  Possibly ,it might sound interesting , and  it might  pique his curiosity , but  it might also  be totally puzzling .  Or boring or irrritating .

    This person has no context,no frame of reference when it comes to classical music .  You might compare it to speaking  a language that person does not know at all  to him .  In order to understand  a  language and speak it , you need to study it  carefully . 

    Actually , getting familiar with classical music and  learning about different genres and forms in it , the history ,  etc , is nowhere near as difficult as learning ,say , Chinese,Japanese or Russian .  But you DO need to leanr SOMETHING  about it in order  to  REALLY gain enjoyment and mental stimulus from  it .  It wasn't a problem for me as a teenager , since I doscovered it on my own and  began devouring  every recording ,  book and and magazine I could get my hands on .  I soaked it all up naturally .  All the information I could find about it .  But  I'm not  a typical example  of how people get interested in classical music .

    I read everything I could about composers and their works ,their lives ,  etc .  And I went through rigorous musical training as a music major  in college and graduate school .  Some people are lucky enough to have had  parents who love classical music and  who  play recordings of it at home and take them to concerts .  I didn't come from a very musical family , but somehow ,I discovered classical music  when I was about 13  and  the rest is history . 

    What can people  do  to  gain that all important context  and frame of reference ?  There are plenty of good  books  explaining classical music  for the uninitiated ,and plenty of internet resources .  It's all  out there for anyone  who is willing to give classical music a chance .Now if there were only more peope like this in America . . . .



Posted: Feb 25 2014, 10:12 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Why Do So Many People Hate Classical Music ?

   It's not "politically correct "for  lovers of classical music to denigrate  Pop music, Rock , or other kinds of  non-classical music .  To do so,or even to say you prefer classical, is to open yourself up to accusations of being a "snob" and an "elitist ".  But it's  perfectly acceptable  for  people to denigrate  classical music ,  to dismiss it as "stuffy, boring and elitist ",  irrelevant ,passe ,  a plaything for the wealthy ,  a  musty old  art form  consisting almost entirely of  dated music from the past , or even  racist .  Music dominated by "Dead White European  Males ".

    But these  notions are all myths .  And unfortunately ,  these myths have closed the minds of so many people  to the possibility of enjoying so much magnificent music written over  the centuries .  It's a fact - many people dislike  classical music not because of the music itself ,but because  they've heard  these myths repeated over and over  . 

   Of course, there's no law that says you MUST love classical music , nor should there be one . If some people don't like it, that's certainly their right .  But they shouldn't dislike it for the wrong reasons !   As the old saying goes , "Don't knock it if you haven't tried it ".  And so many people haven't really TRIED it .  Classical music is probably the most diverse kind of music in existence in terms of  musical styles and genres . 

     There is music by so many composers of  different nationalities, many NOT European , and styles have changed vastly over the centuries . The musicof Stravinsky is vastly different from the music of Beethoven .  Beethoven'smusic is vastly different from the music of Claudio Monteverdi who lived in Italy in  the late  16th and early 17th centuries .   The music of Monteverdi is very different from  Palestrina ,also of Italy , who lived a couple of generations before him . And so  on .The music of  Philip Glass , who is still very much alive , is vastly different from  Stravinsky's .

    The music of  Richard Wagner , a German , is vastly different from the music of Giuseppe Verdi, an Italian born in the same year , 1813 .  Orchestral music is very different form opera ,  and chamber music is very different form both .  There's such  amazing diversity in what we call classical music . So people should not listen to just one or two pieces of it and decide they don't like  the whole shebang .   Can you imagine someone who grew up isolated from the world and saw of movie for the first time , and decided he or she didn't like movies ? 

    So if you're going to listen to some classical music , listen to  various  types of it ; orchestral , opera , chamber music ,  art songs etc . Chances are you will like some  classical works and not others .  It's just the same with movies . We all like some , but not others .  However,with classical  music , you often need repeated hearings before you know whether you like something or not .  You should always be wary of  rejecting a work  immediately .  Give it a chance . 

     There are also  some unfortunate people who don't like classical music because of   music appreciation classes  they took  as  children or teenagers in school .  If a teacher does not a good job of  explaining  this kind of music ,  is a boring , apathetic  teacher , etc ,  the effect can be deadly and  close  a young person's mind for life .  However,  too  many public schools have long abandoned  music  appreciation  classes altogether , and  so many young people get zero exposure to classical music .  This has done possibly even more damage to the cause of classical music .  It's not the fault of these young people that they get no exposure to it .  If you mention the name Ludwig van Beethoven to them you will get blanks states and they will reply "Ludwig van who ?" 

    There are no easy answers as to how to remedy this  unfortunate situation , and how to  increase the popularity of classical  music .  But something MUST be done ,and  I'm convinced that it CAN be done .  It certainly won't be easy , but it's not impossible . 

Posted: Feb 24 2014, 09:36 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Mark Twain Was Right !

  No, this isn't about the great writer and humorist .  It's about the alleged "death" of classical music .  Yes,  rumors of the death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated , like the death of Mark Twain long ago .   Classical music is neither dead nor dying , for all its  undemiable problems . 

    But  recently , one Mark  Vanhoenacker , writing for ,  went so far as to declare classical music dead and buried .  (How do you pronounce his name, anyway ?)  He trotted out all the usual  facts and  half-truths ;  the audience is aging ; there's a lack of younger people at concerts ,  numerous orchestras and opera companies ,not only in the U.S. , have gone under or  are close to it .  It's difficult to sell out performances ;  the costs of running  opera companies and orchestras are prohibitive ;  audiences are predominantly white ;  there's a woeful lack of new music which audiences like .

    Vanhoenacker also sets up at least one or two  straw  men ;  "fancy clothes " are a problem . He does not state whether  the fancy clothes  are worn by either audiences or the performers . Audiences  don't   wear "fancy clothes " for the most part ,and there is no dress code requiring  formal attire .  Orchestras dress somewhat formally ,but so what ?  What's so horrible about a concert where the men are wearing  tuxedos or black ties ?  How can this make  going to concerts a less enjoyable experience ?   Would it be nicer if they all wore dungarees and  T shirts ? 

    In addition , the author mentions  "incomprehensible program notes "  at concerts .  This might be a problem in some  cases ,where the writer  doesn't do a good job explaining the music  or the circumstances behind  the composition of the works , but   the  writers, who tend to be professional musicologists ,  don't  generally write as though they were writing  scholarly papers for a conference of musicologists or  highly technical  analyses by music theorists , which are certainly  highly technical  and esoteric .   Personally , I have not heard  a great many stories about  program notes being  incomprehensible .

     But classical music , for all  the difficulties it faces , is  far from "dead " or even being moribund .  Wolrdwide , there are still more  professional  orchestras ,opera companies ,  chamber ensembles ,  solo instrumentalists of all instruments ,  choruses  , opera and concert singers  than ever before .  And there is most definitely an audience for them .  The vast  majority have not gone under . 

     There are also  more composers  than ever before , and by no means all of them are white males .  The notion that there is a lack of new music is a myth .  Since the year 2,000 ,  numerous new works have been premiered ; orchestral works, operas ,  oratorios , etc  in a wide variety of compositional styles ranging from  rather old -fashioned  conservative  works designed not to  distress audiences  to  works of  mind-boggling complexity  which  are  extremely challenging  an daunting listenign experiences . 

    Many  critics and  composers say that the repertoire of classical music has become  "ossified ", and  performing groups tend to repeat the same old  familiar  masterpieces  to the exclusion of  new works .  This is a half truth .  There is a canon of  lastingly popular operas, symphonies,concertos etc ,  and  many opera companies  and orchestras  tend to concentrate on these , but there are many  exceptions to this rule .  Every year , there is a steady stream of new works by many  different  composers  from all over the world . Of course , most of these works will never achieve a lasting place in the reprtoire , but this is true of  the vast majority of  works written over the centuries . 

     Far from  being "ossified ",  the repertoire of classical music is in constant flux .  In addition to the established, beloved masterpieces , there are new works every year ,plus revivals of works which had been long neglected .  In addition to live performances ,  a staggeringly wide variety of classical music  is available on CD , and more and more  is becoming available on DVD .  If you want to hear music beyond  the familiar works of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven , Tchaikovsky , Ravel and other famous composers , you can  hear  music by composers   few people but  diehard  classical music  fans have ever heard of .  More than you could ever imagine .  Lots of interesting music  which  has been undeservedly neglected . 

     The internet  now enables you to hear  the entire range of western classical music ranging  from  works written over five centuries ago to the latest works by living composers .  If you want to see  an opera performance but   don't wnt to pay for expensive tickets or don't live anywhere near an opera house , you can now see live performances  by the Metropolitan  opera at your local movie theater  for  about $ 20 dollars instead  of  $ 350  for one of the better seats  at the Mets home in Lincoln Center .  Or you can wait until the DVD comes out .

    On youtube,  you can hear  an amazingly wide variety of classical music for nothing .  You can hear recordings and see entire concerts by the world's greatest orchestras ,conductors, pianists and violinists etc .  Works by  just about ANY ocmposer ,period .   You can see complete operas  by many different composers  complete with  English subtitles .  Sung by  the world's greatest singers, living and dead .  You can stream live  and recorded performances by the  Metropolitan opera on their website . 

      Is it a feast or a famine for classical music today ?   You might say both .   But don't ever believe anyone who says  that it is either dead or dying .

Posted: Feb 18 2014, 11:02 PM by the horn | with no comments
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R.I. P. Claudio Abbado , The Gentle Giant Of The Podium

   The great and  revered Italian conductor Cllaudio Abbado has just passed away at the age of 80 in his home in Bologna,Italy  .  It's difficult to believe that such a force of nature , a conductor so filled with energy and  enthusiasm , is no more .  But he had been struggling with the effects of  stomach cancer for some years , while  managing to continue conducting , and his appearance had become more gaunt with age . 

    Many great conductors have been feared by the musicians who played under them ; they were strict disciplinarians who were respected but  dreaded .  Toscanini, Szell, Reiner , for example . But Claudio Abbado was universally loved by the world's greatest orchestras which he conducted for decades ; the Berlin Philharmonic, the London symphony , the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chicago symphony , to name only those most closely associated with him , not to mention the orchestras of  such great opera companies of  the great La Scala  opera house in his native Milan and others .

   Abbado was the gentle giant of the podium ;  never bossy, overbearing  and imperious , he won the respect of  orchestral musicians everywhere with his  exceptional musiciaship and quiet authority .  He was equally admired  by the world's greatest opera singers , with whom he regularly worked ,  and the  most renowned  violinists , pianists and other solo instrumentalists .

    Claudio Abbado was chosen by the musicians of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic to succede the legendary Herbert von Karajan as their chief conductor  in 1989 shortly after the older maestro died that year , and also  been  principal conductor of the London symphony orchestra ,  the music director of  La Scala Milan and the Vienna State opera .  He also served as principal guest conductor of the Chicago symphony orchestra during the 1980s . 

     As a budding young conductor in the early 1960s he was an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein ,and  guest conducted  such great American orchestras as the Boston symphony , Philadelphia and Cleveland  on occaision, although his  main base was Europe . 

     Later in life, he founded several  special more or less ad hoc orchestras such as the Lucerne Festival orchestra , a deluxe, hand-picked  festival orchestra chosen from the greatest orchestras of Europe , and the Mozart orchestra of Bologna , as well as  the All-European youth orchestra , drawn from the most talented young  aspiring musicians of  the continent .

    Abbado was at home in a wide rnge of orchestral and operatic repertoire , ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to the most important composers of the present day .  In opera , he was especially  renowned for his interpretations of  Verdi and Rossini Mozart,  but also conduted operas by Wagner, Alban Berg, Mussorgsky , Debussy and Richard Strauss . 

    He was a  staunch champion of such leading Italian  contemporary  composers as Luigi Nono and others , as well as the music of  other avant-garde European composers as  Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen . 

    Abbado  made numerous recordings , mostly for Deutsche Grammaphon , but also for  Sony Classical and Decca of  a wide variety of  works ,and many have become classics , such as his  La Scala recordings of operas by Verdi ,including  Don Carlos , Aida , Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth and Un Ballo in Maschera .  Classic Rossini opera recordings include  Il Barbiere Di Siviglia , La Cenerentola (Cinderella ), and  Il Viaaggio  Reims .

    There are also recordings of Bizet's Carmen, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Wagner's Lohengrin ,  Debussy's Pelleas& Melisande ,  and Berg's  Wozzeck . 

    Abbado recorded all nine Beethoven symphonies twice, with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, and the complete symphonies of  Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms , Mahler, and Tchaikovsky .  There are also recordings of numerous works by Prokofiev, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky,  Berlioz ,  Bruckner Debussy etc .    Numerous live performances of  operas and concerts by the maestro are available on DVD .

     Few conductors have been so universally loved and admired as Claudio Abbado , by both audiences musicians and  singers .   And few have been less egotistical  and  imperious .  He will be universally missed , but leaves a great and  priceless legacy of  great achievements .


Posted: Jan 20 2014, 10:18 PM by the horn | with no comments
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So You're Going To The Opera For The First Time . . . .

  Recently, a friend of mine and his wife went to see their first opera , at a not too shabby a venue - the Metropolitan opera .  He's a psychologist based in Manhattan  and  a Jazz  buff .  But lately, I've been  able to increase his interest in classical music and opera , and  when he asked me if he and his wife  should try a performance at the Met, I  said of course , as you might expect from me . 

    The opera he chose, with my recommendation , was the new Met production of Tchaikovsky's  poignant "Eugene Onegin", based on a  lengthy verse poem by the great early 19th century writer Alexander Pushkin .  It's the story of a bored and cynical  Russiian playboy who by chance  meets a naive and  vulnerable young woman who falls  hopelessly in love with him ,only to be rejected  because he has no interest in  settling down as a married man . Several years later , he meets her again at a ball in St. Petersburg, where she is now the wife of a  much older Russian general .  He now realizes that he loves her, but is crushed by her rejection of him now that she is a married woman, even though she still feels love for him . 

    It's a richly romantic opera with  plenty of Tchaikovsky's souldful and haunting  melodies .  Not a bad choice .  My friend asked me about what to wear , and I explained that  there is no dress code, and  the only time that some people dress formally there is on the opening night of the season, which is a gala  occaision . 

    That's right . If you've never been to an opera performance ,  those scenes in old movies  at  the opera with everybody dressed in  Tuxedos and gowns are nothing like  the real experience of  going to the opera today .  People don't go there to show off their fancy clothes ; they're there to see and hear an opera .  A lot of these people are opera fans -  just the same way some people are baseball  fans , or of football or basketball .  Some will  always be opera newbies or people who just attend  once in a while .  There may be some wealthy people in the audience , usually in the expensive boxes , but they too may be big opera fans .  There's absolutely nothing stuffy about the opera experience , whatever it may be like . 

     Opera fans  discuss the performances  just as  hearedly as sports fans . But unlike sports,  there are no clearcut wnners or losers .  They disagree very often .  But  ultimately, EVERYBODY there is a winner , whether the cast or the audience .   

     I also explained that although the opera was sung in Russian by a mostly Russian cast  of singers , and the conductor was also  Russian,  the Met has  a system  whereby you can  see an English translation of  whatever opera is being performed  on the back of the seat in front of you , and this certainly helped  to enhance their enjoyment of the opera .

     Many other opera houses  use supertitiles, whereby a translation  is  projected onto the stage .  But thew Met stage is so enormous that it's impossible  to project a translation  so that everyone can see it, hence the ingenious  so-called  "Met Titles ".  

     So if you've never had the pleasure of  attending  an opera performance at any of the who knows how many which exist all over the globe, don't hesitate yourself !    Would my friend and his wife like to go to more Met performances ? The answer was a definite yes !


Posted: Jan 08 2014, 11:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Classical Music In 2013 - The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous

   The year 2013 in classical  music was a  bewildering and  dizzying  mix of artistic  excellence and   fiscal  and administrative woes for performing arts institutions all over the globe .  Sometimes it seemed as though the  entire world of classical music was bout to implode , yet there have been glimmers of hope amid all  the  bad news .

   First , the bad news .  Orchestras and opera companies  all over Europe , America and elsewhere  are struggling to stay alive and some have gone under .  The plucky New York City opera , a fixture in that  great city  for nearly 70 years , declared bankruptcy  and  has ceased  giving performances  , and has been unable to return  to  Lincoln Center , where it had  stood  next to the mighty and far more glamorous  Metropolitan  oper since the 1960s . Billionaire  business tycoon  David Koch , who had  contributed  greatly to  the company in funding  the recent extensive  renovation of  the former New York State theater, now named after him, is no longer willing to provide the help  to save the company , and there are other complex causes for this  disaster . 

    The Minnesota orchestra of Minneapolis  has been  locked out  for over  year due a power struggle between the musicians  and its management , and  Osmo Vanska , its Finnish-born music director has resigned  due to the impasse after a decade of  critical and audience acclaim  as its head , and  a series of  recordings with Sweden's  BIS label  has been cancelled .  In Italy , the Rome opera is on the verge of  going under , as well  as  the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino  opera company in Florence .  The whole  opera infrstructure in Italy , ironically the birthplace of opera 400 years ago , seems about to implode , apparently due to  poor management  .

    Elsewhere in Europe ,  two of Germany's most prestigious radio orchestras , those of Stuttgart and the nearby one in thew resort town of Baden-Baden are being merged  for financial reasons , and  some of the musicians may  have to be downsized .  At least two of  the orchestras of Greece have folded ,  and in Asia , the Maylasian Philharmonic of Kuala Lumpur is  plagued with management problems . 

    The Brrooklyn Philharmonic  in New York, acclaimed for its adventurous programming  , has  gone bankrupt , as well as the Napa Valley Phiharmonic in California , the San Antonio, Texas, opera , and Opera Boston . The Milwaukee symphony has recently announced   financial  troubles which could threaten its existence .  And there are quite a few others everywhere that  are struggling .

     But on the plus side , most of the world's who knows how many  opera  companies  are still alive and kicking , and  they are performing  a very wide variety of repertoire  ranging from centuries ago to  new or recent works .  James Levine , the internationally acclaimed  music director of the Metropolitan opera , has returned to the orchestra pit  there  after  nearly two years of severe back  trouble and other ailments , and though confined to a  motorized wheelchair , he  health has improved considerably .  He recently conducted  the first  new production of  Verdi's  final  opera  "Falstaff " in nearly 50 years  at the Met  to considerable  acclaim  nd his renewed presence  on  the Met's roster of conductors  could not be more welcome .

    The young  Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin  appears to be doing great work reviving the fortunes of the  troubled Philadelphia orchestra , one of the world's greatest , after several years without a music director , and  he has begun to record with the orchestra for the presitigious  Deutsche Grammophon label .  After a long search due to  James Levine's departure from the Boston symphony due to his  severe health problems , the orchestra has found  a promising  choice to succeed him , the gifted   young Latvian conductor  Andris Nelsons .

     In the ridiculous category ,  the new production of  Wagner's Ring cycle at  the  legendary festival  theater in Bayreuth  ,Germany in honor of the  bicentennial  of his birth turned out to  be  a total  travesty of  the  monumental  work .   The composer intended the  tetralogy of  operas to be set in a mythical   pagan  Germany with the Germanic gods, goddesses,  superheroes, giants, dwarves,  water nixies ,  etc, yet the director and designer set the production in  contemporary  America  out west , and also in  the oil rich  city of Baku, Azerbaijan on the Caspian sea .   The Ring is all about  greed and lust for power , and  the fierce struggle between the gods , dwarves, and giants etc ,  but the production  turned the work into  something Wagner could never even have conceived of  let alone have approved of .  Such  preposterous productions of operas  have been the norm in European opera companies since the 1970s, and there seems to be no end in sight .

     But whatever happens in the near future , don't believe the doomsayers who are convinced that  classical  music is on life support . You can't keep a great art form down !


Posted: Dec 30 2013, 08:36 PM by the horn | with no comments
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It's Beethoven's Birthday - But Do You Really Know The Music And The Man ?

   December 16 th is Beethoven's birthday , and he was born in  1770 in the provincial German town of Bonn in the Rhineland , which served as the capitol of west Germany before the reunification  of east and west , leaving  his hometown  at the age of 21 to move to  Vienna , the greatest musical center of the day in order to seek  the chance ot achieve greatness , where he died in 1827 .

   We all know  that Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time , and that he suffered from  deafness which progressed slowly beginning in his early 30s even though the exact cause remains a matter of medical speculation  . Everyone knows the famous melody of the "Ode To Joy " , the  "Da Da Da Daaaah " which opens the fifth symphony , and the catchy melody of his brief piano piece "Fur Elise ", which is just a  potboiler and  far from being one of his greates or most important works . And the , the correct title is actually "Fur Therese ", as the messy manuscript was apparently misread  by the publisher .

    But how many people REALLY know  Beethoven's music , its  emotional power, grandeur , originality , and intensity , as well as its passages of tender lyricism  , bloisterous humor , contempltiveness , and  other expressive qualities ?  Not nearly enough .  You really have to take the time to get to know the music by carefull listening  , and it helps to know something about the man, his extraordinary life , the context of the times he lived in  etc .  Fortunately, there is  wealth of  writing about this , in biographies, books, articles , etc , all esily accessible over the internet . 

    Beethoven wrote quite a few  works  which are simple, straightforward , and tuneful , mainly for money .  But his nine symphonies, five piano concertos , violin conerto ,  32 piano sonatas , his sole opera Fidelio , 16 string quartets , his  Miss Sollemnis , a setting of the Roman Catholic mass , and many other works  are NOT easy listening if you're new to  classical music .  In fact , you can listen to them  for many,many years without ever  leaning everything about them and   you will always gain new insights into them from repeated hearings .

    And what kind of man was Ludwig Van Beethoven , son of a  court singer in  Bonn of  Flemish origin ?  He showed  early  musical talent as a boy in his hometown , studied with a repsected music techer who taught him  the basics of compositon and  began to compose  his juvenile works, which are very little known today .  His father thought he might be able to exploit the boy as a child prodigy like Mozart , and forced him to practice at the keyboard  for many hours  a day ,  even treating him roughly . 

    The young Ludwig never became another Mozart ,but he developed into a formidable piano virtuoso  and in his early 20s, realized that he should move from provincial Bonn in Germany to  sophisticated  Vienna ,  capitol of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire  as well as being the musical  capitol of Europe . That was where the opportunity  was .  He hoped to study with Mozart , but met him only once  shortly before  his trgically early death . He did manage to study with  another great composer and friend of Mozart , Joseph Haydn .  But he claimed to have learned little  from the great master and was  beginning to  show his own  originality as a composer .  He also  acheived great  acclaim as a piano virtuoso ,  and the wealthy ,influential  music-loving nobility of Vienna  recognized his  brilliance  and began to support him  financially and with comissions for a variety of works .

      But Beethoven was a stubborn ,headstring , a  not particularly  deferential,tactful   and suave personality who was never willing to suck up to the rich and powerful Viennese aristocracy and  powerful politicians ,  potentates and prelates .  He ws gruff ,  irascible and did not suffer fools  gladly .  H e never married , but  always hoped to find a woman who migh marry him .  But he was rather uncouth at times ,  moved frequently round Vienna serching for an apartment who pleased him and was  sloppy, unkempt  nd often shabbily dressed .  The Viennese tolertaed his  foibles, though, because of his  genius .  His dwellings were a mess .  You might call him the Oscar Madison of music, although he had no Viennese Felix Unger neat freak  as a  roommate - fortunately !

     The exact  cause remains unclear , but Beethoven began to suffer  distressing difficulties with his hearing from his early 30s ,  and  gradually became  almost completely deaf . Doctors were unable to help him much , but a   crude  sound magnifying device , an ear horn, helped him somewhat .  He was a  stubborn , crotchety , irascible  fellow , and while he had many friends  among the leading musicians of the day ,  his frequent ill temper  caused rifts between  them frequently .  He  had frequent  quarrels with his two brothers , the only surving  immediate  family members  he had ;  his parents had had several other children who died in infancy , and  his nephew , son of one of them  , came to live with him after his parent's a crimonious  divorce .  Beethoven  disapproved of the boy's mother , and thought her to be  loose woman . Uncle and nephew had  a difficult relationship to say the least .

     Deafness  forced Beethoven to  abandon his brilliant career as a pianist , but fortunately it dd not stop him from  producing  some of the greatest music ever written ; nine  great symphonies , 32  piano sonatas , ten for violin and piano , five for cello and pianoi, five piano concertos , one for violin ,  sixteen string quartets ,  one opera called Fidelio ,  numerous miscellaneous piano works ,  two masses , other chamber works  such as  trios for violin, cello and piano , and much, much more . 

     It was anything but an easy , uneventful life .  In addition to his deafness , difficult personality , lack of luck with women ,  family woes , difficulty in finding musicians and orchestras which could do justice to his  denanding works ,  etc,  he was often plagued by  various ailments such as stomach trouble and other maladies .  When he departed the world in 1827 , his funeral was a public event  , and the great  Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer delivered a funeral oration . 

     And as they say , the rest is history . Beethoven's works became an integral part of the standard repertoire for  orchestras , pianists, conductors, violinists ,  and other musicians  .  But  how many of his works do YOU know,a ssuming you are not a lover of classical music , a professional  musician or musicologist ?   There's so much more to  Beethoven than a few  famous tunes .   The melodies , more properly called themes, in Beethoven are only the basic building blocks of his  works . What mkes them great is what  he does with those  basic, often simple melodies , constntly trnsforming them with such ingenuity  , and  forming them into works of great complexity and depth .

    Have you experienced that grandeur , intensity and emotional power of  Beethoven's music, as well as  its  tender lyricism ,  boisterous humor and   moments of  deep contemplation , its many-sidedness which I just mentioned  ?  If not  , please start listening carefully to his music , and go far beyond those popular tunes which everyone knows .  You'll never regret it !




Posted: Dec 16 2013, 10:09 PM by the horn | with no comments
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